VIS 2017. Review of “A Brief History of Princess X” by Gabriel Abrantes

Gabriel Abrantes’ latest short is a supercharged history of Dadaist sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi’s infamous “Princess X”, a futuristic bronze phallus that is actually a bust portrait of Napoleon’s equally infamous great-grandniece, Marie Bonaparte, and his most misunderstood work.  The short film was a festival hit, and after having premiered at last year’s Curtas do Vila do Conde Film Festival and screened at many festivals around the world, including Locarno, New York and Toronto, it played now in Competition at the 2017 Vienna Independent Shorts.

Ever the provocateur, Abrantes makes a jocular phallic short film about Brâncuşi’s sculpture “Princess X”. His film is a brief, verbose chronicle of this precise piece of art and the erotically charged narrative threads that tie together its conception in Brancusi’s studio, its model, the latter’s revolutionary studies in female sexuality, and ultimately, the sculpture’s placement in museums. In fact, it is Abrantes himself who narrates, with a light-hearted tone, his short film in the English language (a French version also exists) in a heart on sleeve, sincere voice. But, Abrantes also directs it as if it were a silent film. “A Brief History of Princess X” is original and different in its irreverence and unwillingness to play it safe and by the book. It is calculated and precise, condensing an impressive amount of information and infusing it with humor – and, all of this in under 7 minutes! It is not an over- the-top, arrogant, know-it-all film. Quite the contrary, actually!

Because everything in “A Brief History of Princess X” is true, we could easily say that Lord Byron’s quote “The truth is always strange; stranger than fiction” applies perfectly to Abrantes’ smart, weird, high-speed hybrid special little short anecdotal doc, whose author wears his historical knowledge lightly. It is true that the statue resembles a giant phallus in front of which, immature adolescents take highly cheeky selfies. Marie Bonaparte’s somewhat delusional studies on the distance between the vagina and the clitoris in relation to the intensity of the orgasm, as well as the continuous operations that she undertook to try – in vain – to end her frigidity are also true. And so is Brâncuşi’s “bad luck” regarding his decision to exhibit the sculpture for the first time at a time when Duchamp’s urinal attracted all the attention. Abrantes, therefore, adapts his narrative of true facts and comedy tropes to a part of History that even the craziest writer would not have thought of, showing his audience what happens when reality overcomes fiction, when Art History mingles with sexology, and when surrealist provocation becomes, almost a century later, a new kind of modernism and provocation.

“A Brief History of Princess X” plods along quite nicely, elegantly – the cinematography, curtesy of Jorge Quintela, is crisp, and the pace and editing by Margarida Abreu is upbeat and whimsical, so much so that it is quite easy to actually believe the story to be a fabrication, a figment of the author’s imagination. But, this is, as a matter of fact, Abrantes’ final trick, because every single detail is as real as it can be!

Abrantes reflects, infusing his short with thoughts and opinions that perfectly level out with his light, lackadaisical style, on the creation of Art, its origins, purposes and the consumption thereof, its presentation, interpretations and legacy.

In fact, the short sets on improbable grounds. We do not know what to expect from it. Only in the final moments does Abrantes acknowledge Brâncuşi’s artistic accomplishments as well as their underappreciation by the public – and this indeed absolves the short’s initial impressions of pubescence. Nevertheless, these are actually understandable because “A Brief History of Princess X” is about the perception of the sculpture as well as its beauty, itself only grasped when one considers that same perception and actually knows the story of its creation – all of this smartly and hilariously outlined by Abrantes. After all, it is all a matter of interpretation: someone might see a princess and someone else, a bronze phallus, to which the filmmaker refers as a “slick dildo”, thus giving us his own interpretation of it. “A Brief History of Princess X” focuses as much on the perception of the sculpture, as on its history and to some, beauty. Likewise, the eye of Abrantes’ spectator needs to focus as much on what is fascinating about the story being told, as on what is “beautiful” in the work of art in question – but also on how Abrantes perceives it. Moreover, the director fills the absurdity of the story with further paradoxes such as the composed, automatic coldness of the artist in front of the openly sexual discourse of his model and has fun with the cinematic language. Furthermore, while narrating his film, he also accentuates the play on words with “Princess Sex”.

Combining fast-paced, entertaining and caricatured narration with the history of early Modernism, the emerging science of psychoanalysis and the first studies on female sexuality, “A Brief History of Princess X” is a surreal, absurd, edifying, frenetic and splendidly playful short film that everyone should see!



Production: Hermaphrodite Films, Les Films du Bélier, LUX/ICO (Portugal, France, UK, 2016)

Producers: Gabriel Abrantes, Justin Taurand, Benjamin Cook

Director: Gabriel Abrantes

Screenplay: Gabriel Abrantes

Cinematography: Jorge Quintela

Editing: Margarida Abreu

Cast: Joana Barrios, Francisco Cipriano, Filipe Vargas

Color – 7 min.

Premiere: 14/07/2016 (Curtas do Vila do Conde)

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